How to Become an Olympic Track and Field Athlete

Ashton Eaton broke the decathlon world record at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The track and field athletes that challenge how fast humans can run – even those who eventually become elite international stars – may begin competing at a variety of ages. Prospective athletes typically enter the sport at a local level, by joining an athletics club or participating in a school program.

Some young athletes will specialize in a different sport before switching to track and field at a later age.

For example, a basketball player with strong leaping ability could become a long jumper, while a heavyweight wrestler or football lineman might take up the discus or shot put. In any case, a standout high school performance – if only for one year – will almost always be a prerequisite to gain an American college track and field scholarship. Taking the college route is a frequent path to success for standout track and field athletes, even for many non-Americans.

In the United States, success in NCAA competition is a common step toward an Olympic team berth. But again, there is no single path that leads to Olympic competition. Some athletes who are past college age may be able to hone their skills sufficiently to compete in USA Track & Field events – including the Visa Championship Series (featuring indoor and outdoor meets), the USA Running Circuit (a road series for distance runners) or The USA Race Walking Grand Prix Series – and eventually qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Governing Bodies for the Sport

Each country has its own athletics governing body. USA Track & Field (USATF) is the national governing body for track and field in the United States. A competitor must be a USATF member to enter the Olympic Trials. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is the international track and field governing body and writes the athletics rules used in the Olympic Games.

Minimum Requirements to Attend the U.S. Olympic Trials

In addition to being a USATF member, each U.S. Olympic Trials competitor must be a U.S. citizen and, typically, must meet the qualifying standard (within a specified time period) for his/her event.

For 2016, the U.S. Olympic Trials men’s qualifying standards were as follows:

  • 100 meters: 10.16 seconds
  • 200 meters: 20.50
  • 400 meters: 45.40
  • 800 meters: 1:46.00
  • 1500 meters: 3:38.00
  • 5000 meters: 13:28.00
  • 10,000 meters: 28:15.00
  • 110-meter hurdles: 13.52
  • 400-meter hurdles: 49.50
  • 3000-meter steeplechase: 8:32.00
  • marathon: 2:15:00
  • 20-kilometer race walk: 1:36.00
  • 50-kilometer race walk: 5:15.00
  • high jump: 2.28 meters (7 feet, 5¾ inches)
  • pole vault: 5.65/18-6¼
  • long jump: 8.05/26-4¾
  • triple jump: 16.66/54-7¾
  • shot put: 20.50/67-3
  • discus: 62.00/203-5
  • hammer: 72.00/236-2
  • javelin: 77.00/252-7
  • decathlon: 7900 points

For 2016, the U.S. Olympic Trials women’s qualifying standards were as follows:

  • 100 meters: 11.32 seconds.
  • 200 meters: 23.20
  • 400 meters: 52.20
  • 800 meters: 2:03.00
  • 1500 meters: 4:09.50
  • 5000 meters: 15:25.00
  • 10,000 meters: 32:25.00
  • 100-meter hurdles: 13.00
  • 400-meter hurdles: 56.95
  • 3000-meter steeplechase: 9:53.00
  • marathon: 2:37:00
  • 20-kilometer race walk: 1:48.00
  • high jump: 1.85 meters (6 feet, ¾ inch)

A track and field athlete is eligible for an automatic invitation to the U.S. Olympic Trials in the same event if he/she has earned an individual medal in an Olympic Games, or in an IAAF World Indoor or Outdoor Championship during the year of the Trials or during the four previous calendar years; is the defending U.S. champion; or finished in the top three in his/her event at the preceding year's U.S. Outdoor Championships.

Additionally, a race walk or marathon athlete is eligible for automatic qualification into the U.S. Olympic Trials if he/she has previously earned a U.S. Olympic team berth, or has won a USA marathon or 50-kilometer Race Walk Championship during the previous four calendar years.

For more U.S. Olympic Team eligibility rules and qualifying standards, see the USATF’s web page for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

How to Qualify for an Olympic Team
The U.S. Olympic track and field team is selected at four Olympic Trials. The men’s 50-kilometer race walking team is selected at one trial while the men’s and women’s marathon teams are each selected at a separate trial. The remainder of the team is selected at the U.S. Track and Field Trials. Generally, the top three finishers in each event at the Trials will qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, subject to those athletes achieving IAAF Olympic qualification standards (see below). The only team members selected by discretion of the USATF are members of the 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 relay teams. Six athletes are included on each relay team, even though only four compete in a relay event. Each qualifying nation may send one team in each relay event to the Olympic Games (see below for IAAF qualification rules). IAAF Olympic Qualifying Standards
Athletes who qualify for the U.S. Olympic team must also achieve the IAAF’s Olympic qualification standards, with a few exceptions. As with the U.S. Trials, the IAAF sets “A” and “B” qualification standards. The 2012 men’s “A” standards are:
  • 100 meters: 10.18 seconds
  • 200 meters: 20.55
  • 400 meters: 45.30
  • 800 meters: 1:45.6
  • 1500 meters: 3:35.50
  • 5000 meters: 13:20.00
  • 10,000 meters: 27:45.0
  • marathon: 2:15:00
  • 3000-meter steeplechase: 8:23.10
  • 110-meter hurdles: 13.52
  • 400-meter hurdles: 49.50
  • 20-kilometer race walk: 1:22:30
  • 50-kilometer race walk: 3:59:00
  • decathlon: 8200 points
  • high jump: 2.31 meters
  • pole vault: 5.72
  • long jump: 8.20
  • triple jump: 17.20
  • shot put: 20.50
  • discus: 65.00
  • hammer: 78.0
  • javelin: 82.0

The 2012 women’s “A” standards are:
  • 100 meters: 11.29
  • 200 meters: 23.10
  • 400 meters: 51.55
  • 800 meters: 1:59.9
  • 1500 meters: 4:06.0
  • 5000 meters: 15:20.0
  • 10,000 meters: 31:45.0
  • marathon: 2:37:00
  • 3000-meter steeplechase: 9:43.0
  • 100-meter hurdles: 12.96
  • 400-meter hurdles: 55.50
  • 20-kilometer race walk: 1:33:30
  • heptathlon: 6150 points
  • high jump: 1.95 meters
  • pole vault: 4.50
  • long jump: 6.75
  • triple jump: 14.30
  • shot put: 18.30
  • discus: 62.0
  • hammer: 71.50
  • javelin: 61.0

The relays are the only events without time or distance standards. Instead, the world’s top 16 teams – based on the aggregate of the two fastest times by national teams during the qualification period – are invited. Nations can name any runners they choose, but if a country has competitors in the individual event, those runners must be on the relay team. For example, if a team qualifies in the 4 x 100-meter relay, any runners that nation has entered in the straight 100, including a reserve, must be part of the relay squad.

See the IAAF Entry Standards for full Olympic qualification and eligibility details.

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